IBM, CA and other global companies are setting out to prove that games are not child's play.
They are injecting badges, missions, avatars, leader boards and other elements from computer games into business relationships as a way of inspiring loyalty, building communities and molding behavior.
The widely used buzzword for the phenomenon is "gamification," but EMC social engagement manager Matthew Brender chafes at the term.
"It's a non-word," he said at a recent conference on the topic in Manhattan.
When dealing with executives, Michelle Accardi, vice president of ePlatform marketing at Islandia-based CA, prefers an academic term.
"Gamification is really behavioral science," she said. She explained that CA's customers need assurance that the approach is based on solid research. "We have to show them the data and analytics behind this that will allow them to get where they want to go."
Whatever it's called, the tools are catching on with companies around the world. Technology researcher Gartner predicts that the worldwide market for gamification tools will grow from $242 million in 2012 to $2.8 billion in 2016.
Ethan McCarty, senior manager of digital and social Strategy at IBM, said gamification techniques -- using a narrative and creating competition -- are springing up in unexpected places. On the dashboard of the Toyota Prius hybrid car, for instance, the display provides an ongoing graphical readout of the user's gas mileage.
"It's literally changing my behavior," McCarty said.
The all-electric Nissan Leaf takes the concept even further, creating a leader board to let individuals who drive the same car compete as they track their personal mileage.
In the nondigital sphere, municipalities worried about chewing gum on the sidewalks are putting targets on garbage cans.
"It plays to our natural human tendency to use a narrative, to compete and alleviate problems by grouping unrelated tasks to make it feel like a mission," McCarty said.
As the parents of many teenagers know, computer games can be highly addictive. Alan Lepofsky, principal analyst at Constellation Research, said transplanting that habit-forming quality to more prosaic tasks can be a powerful motivator.
"The reason we continue to play games is the games motivate you to continue," Lepofsky said. "You want to beat your score in Pacman to move from level to level. Games tug at you emotionally . . . You get a high score. You play again because you want to beat that score."
To harness that power, Armonk-based IBM has incorporated gamification in its Digital IBMer Hub, which is designed to help employees learn social computing skills. The hub incorporates self-paced learning modules that require employees to perform activities like sharing information on a wiki. Employees who finish get a badge. The idea is to take complex or unrelated tasks and provide little carrots for the completion of small steps, McCarty said.
At IBM, gamification is not limited to internal programs. The designers of IBM Connections, social media software for businesses, opened the platform up to gamification features from vendors like Badgeville, the California company that sponsored the recent gamification conference in Manhattan.
Gamification also is central to IBM's World Community Grid software, which lets individuals donate computing power to solve complex scientific problems when their machines are free. The computers are put to work on discovering, for instance, how protein interactions operate in muscular dystrophy, or how water flows through a new type of filter. Participants can join a group and enter a competition on who donates the most computer time.
Recognition is a powerful motivator, Lepofsky said, and continuing recognition can provide continued motivation.
For example, if a sales representative breaks the record for the territory, an email to the team will provide temporary recognition; but if the rep's record-breaking feat is posted on an online profile, its power continues.
In the end, Lepofsky says, it's about using digital tools to harness human emotions:
"Gamifications tugs on our heartstrings," Lepofsky said. "It's about making you feel you're noticed and appreciated."